Horns, Aggies In Rare Must-Win Battle

Texas’ game against rival Texas A&M Wednesday shapes up as more than a revenge game for the Horns. A win for either team would go a long way toward securing a fifth (and likely final) NCAA Tournament bid from the Big 12 Conference.

If the Big 12 only gets five invites on Selection Sunday (March 13), you have to figure that nationally ranked Kansas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma have already punched their tickets while Texas Tech (16-6) likely sealed the deal as well with its double-OT home win over the Jayhawks Monday. That leaves a fifth bid dangling in front of the Aggies and Horns like a Burnt Orange carrot.

Relative to the 15-6 Aggies, the 16-7 Horns have a higher RPI rating, key wins over Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, and more basketball tradition on its side of the court. Texas likely must split its six remaining regular season games and then win in the opening round of the Big 12 Tournament to nail down a seventh straight trip to the Big Dance.

Resurgent Texas A&M, under first-year coach Billy Gillispie, has posted its first winning campaign since 1993. A clean sweep of the Horns this season would make for a mighty fine calling card should a final bid come down to these two programs. But at 4-6 in league play, the Aggies can ill afford to fall to three games below .500 with contests remaining at Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

The Horns suffered a rare loss (74-63) in this series at College Station on January 12. The setback, which came shortly after the team first got wind of leading scorer and rebounder P.J. Tucker’s academic woes, seems like ages ago when the Horns were ranked in the Top Ten in both major polls. But coach Rick Barnes dismisses ‘revenge’ and ‘NCAA seeds’ as a factor in Wednesday’s ballgame, set for 7 p.m., at the Erwin Center.

"This time of year, we’re all trying to win games," he said. "I don’t think it matters, other than worrying about what we’ve got to do ourselves to improve every day. We’ve still got to take care of the ball. We had eight turnovers in the second half (against Kansas State) which was a big difference in the way they came back in the game. That’s more on my mind than anything. I think we’re at the point where our team has to worry about itself."

Texas has won 30 of the last 34 meetings against the Farmers, and holds a 125-80 advantage in the all-time series. Texas is 11-2 versus the Aggies in the Rick Barnes era.

"A&M is going to play hard because they have all year," Barnes added. "They’ve got guys that have played a lot of minutes. They understand their roles from start to finish. We’ve still got some guys now, in February, trying to figure out what their role is because of our situation."

The Horns will suit up six healthy scholarship players, while semi-healthy Sydmill Harris will continue to sit out most practice sessions while logging as many minutes as he can on game day. The senior posted 17 points (5-of-8 threes) in 36 minutes Saturday. Junior G Kenton Paulino (dislocated toe) was cleared to play Tuesday by the team trainer, but his effectiveness in a game situation is still uncertain.

"He can’t push laterally; that’s his problem," Barnes said Monday before the trainer OKed Paulino to play. "He can run straight ahead but he can’t do anything going from side-to-side."

With Texas’ reduced roster, all eight scholarship players have recorded career highs in minutes played in the last five contests: Dion Dowell (24 vs. Iowa State), Daniel Gibson (45 vs. Iowa State), Harris (36 vs. K-State), Jason Klotz (40 vs. Iowa State), Paulino (32 at Kansas), Kenny Taylor (38 vs. K-State) and Mike Williams (23 vs. Texas Tech). Klotz has seen the most additional minutes. His 34.4 minutes played since the loss of front court mates P.J. Tucker and LaMarcus Aldridge is up 10.1 minutes from the first 16 games of the season.

It’s critical that Williams become more of a scoring threat, Barnes said again this week. The team also needs Klotz to get to the free throw line more often, the head coach added.

"I think it’s (Klotz’s) positioning on the floor," Barnes observed. "There’s a big difference between shooting a jump-hook from seven or eight feet than from four to five feet. It’s the initial post-up position that’s important."

Meanwhile, F Brad Buckman is playing some of the best ball of his career. The junior has recorded three straight double-doubles and averaged 21.3 points and 15.3 rebounds per game while hitting 20-of-32 (.625) field goals. He had a personal-best 27-point, 21-rebound performance at Colorado. He then recorded 17 points (5-of-9 FG, 7-of-9 FT) and 10 boards in Saturday’s overtime win against Kansas State on the way to Big 12 Player of the Week honors.

LONE STAR SHOWDOWN

For those who care, the totals in the inaugural State Farm Lone Star Showdown (the all-sports athletics competition between the Longhorns and the Aggies) currently shows Texas holding a 5-3 lead in the standings. The winning school will receive 0.5 points following Wednesday’s outcome. In order to win the Showdown, a school must acquire 10.0 points during the year.

TELEVISION: The game will be televised in the state of Texas by Fox Sports Southwest.


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